How a Disposable Cup Became a Lasting Icon of the '90s

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The splash of teal and purple, across a waxy paper cup — does it remind you of your childhood? Your mom passing you a slice of fruit and a cup of water after a soccer game? A first kiss at an ice skating rink? A sugar-rushed birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s?

About a month ago, users on Reddit asked: Who created this design, known as “Solo Jazz”?

One of the top comments, posted by freelance motion graphics artist Douglas Schatz, was a surprising wealth of information. There was an online community devoted to the design, people had asked Solo (who purchased the original company that created the design, Sweetheart Cup Company, in 2004) who was behind it, the official response was a woman named Gina from Missouri. Schatz ended his original comment with a plea: “So, I hope you guys can find Gina, because I really like her design, but I also doubt that she understands the emotional impact the cup has on children born in the 80s and raised in the 90s.”

The Springfield News-Leader sent a reporter out to her house, after some Internet-age sleuthing, and uncovered the answer. The designer’s name was Gina Ekiss. An internal contest had been held to come up with the design, and Ekiss submitted the jazz design, along with a few others. She still has the original charcoal sketches, and is surprised with all the attention it has gotten lately. “It just seems so insane to me,” she is quoted as saying.

But, depending who you ask, the story doesn’t end there. A woman named Stephanie Miller, an artist based in Ohio, commented throughout the Reddit thread claiming she was the original designer, that she created the design for a competing company called Imperial Bondware.

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Miller says of the design, “I do know that it came out of my head. The one I did came out first, as far as I can tell. Somehow [Sweetheart] was able to co-opt it. I don’t know how that happened, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with me.” She speculated that a salesman found her design, and brought it to Sweetheart, who tweaked it just enough to make it their own.

She remembers creating the design, also for an internal contest: “Everything was so linear and kind of boring and I just wanted to do something that was a little more fun and loose than what was on cups before.” She went across the street and bought some ink, and started painting, with a paintbrush that to this day “still has teal on it, it won’t go away,” though any original artwork has been lost with time.

The loose nature of the design had another benefit, beyond being trendy: “The whole idea was that it would be easier to be printed, because the design didn’t have to line up at all. You didn’t have to worry about edges lining up.”

Ekiss disputes that the idea came from someone else. As the News-Leader article states, “The design was similar to something she had designed in college, Ekiss said, rejecting the idea that she ripped off another cup company’s design.”

Ekiss could not be reached for comment, but both women have similar stories. An internal contest that sparked the design, a desire to move away from anything too geometric and linear, a fondness for teal and purple, and an eye for what would be most practical.

Solo (who was bought by Dart Container in 2012), doesn’t have the records to verify either story. A spokesperson for the company said, “As of now, our best assumption is that Gina was the original creator; however, we aren’t able to confirm. Looks like a fascinating, yet unsolved, Internet mystery!”

It appears that, at least for now, whether it was Ekiss or Miller who came up with the design first will remain unknown. But the real champions of the design today is the cult following that has sprung up around the cup.

There’s a Facebook and Tumblr page devoted to the design, but the true hub of Solo Jazz is dump.fm, a chat site comprised of images and GIFs instead of text. The creator of the chat surrounding the cup, artist Arjun Srivatsa, explained its origins: In 2011, he brought up the cup to other users, who immediately latched on to the nostalgic element of seeing the cup in their youths.

The design became a meme, a shorthand for the ‘90s. Someone found a clip of a Nirvana MTV session where Kurt Cobain sips from a jazz cup. Naturally, a YTMND page was created with a looping GIF of the moment, while a live version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” plays in the background. The design has been slapped on water coolers, go-go boots and even Cool Ranch Doritos, and has been transformed into someprettyinexplicableGIFs.

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Srivatsa noted that some of the appeal for millennials was not realizing how prevalent the design was until twenty years later. “Although it was made specifically as an invisible design, something that would blend it, it’s so obviously ‘90s and it’s so obviously us,” he said. “That color scheme was very prominent, so that cup design is so dated. It carries a very powerful connotation to millennials’ childhood.”

“Invisible design” was part of the magic of re-discovery. For most kids in the ‘90s, the design was so prolific that it almost went unnoticed, and when it was pointed out again twenty years later, it introduced a rush of memories from childhood.

Schatz, who created the jazz design skin that other users applied the design with, says, “There’s a nostalgic feeling when you look at it. It had never really clicked with me how great it is until somebody pointed it out.”

Srivatsa has even given a presentation on the design at several galleries, and how it pertains to meme culture. One of his takeaways is this idea of a “shared experience,” something that has become more possible with the rise of the Internet. “I was trying to de-code how a simple cup, which is something that has a very specific function, can live beyond its intended purpose and grow in an artistic sense, in a community sense, communications sense.” By sharing Solo Jazz memes, users were expanding the meaning of the initial design, which was originally just an easy-to-print abstract shape, into a symbol of youth in the ‘90s.

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Schatz echoed the sentiment on Reddit: “We’ve given this cup supplementary meaning that didn’t exist when the designer submitted the design to the contest several decades ago,” whether that designer was Ekiss or Miller.

He added in an interview, “The thing that made me laugh was that both of them had the same reaction to the Facebook page and the Tumblr page that was filled with all the dump.fm meme content, which was that they were both like, ‘Why are people doing this? Why does this matter?’ And I get it, I’ve made motion graphics for corporations and I don’t feel attached to any of that stuff that I do, it’s just a job, it’s not a work of art. I guess I can understand why they’re so surprised that people are having this weird, nostalgic moment about this design.”

Miller made a similar comment: “I don’t know [why people are still interested]. To me it’s interesting, I’ve always thought it was very cool that it was still out there, and every time I’d see it I’d say, ‘Hey, I designed that cup.’ But I had no idea it would get the crazy cult following that it has now. But I think it’s awesome!”

Who knew that a disposable paper cup would stick around this long?